Europe's Middle East policies: a southern European twist

More coordination and strategy are needed in Europe's response to the sinister signs of stolen revolution. The political-strategic impulse has come from the south in the past. In the current economic crisis this should be more the case, not less.

Events in the Mediterranean and Middle East unravel at a breathtaking place. As the multilayered dynamics of a historic transformation play out, public debate oscillates erratically from the first hurrahs for an Arab spring to the somber talk about a chilling Arab winter. It is beyond the glimmer of a doubt that the transformation underway is not linear. It's difficult to imagine how it could have been. But a new equilibrium is far from sight and the historic responsibility to ensure that, ebbs and flows notwithstanding, it represents a qualitative leap forward from where it began cannot be eluded.

While being conscious that it is only one among several players on a complex chessboard, this is a historic responsibility that Europe cannot ignore. As far as “Brussels” goes, much has been done. But to punch its full weight and counter-cyclically move against the sinister signs of a stolen revolution, more politics and strategy in the EU’s response are sorely needed. In the past, the political-strategic impulse behind the Union’s Mediterranean policies came from southern European member states. The current economic crisis means that at this historical juncture this ought to be more the case, not less.

The box of tricks

The European Union has not watched idly as its southern neighbourhood has grappled with the insidious challenges of political change. To its credit, it rather rapidly changed its tune, publically acknowledging its past flaws in supporting authoritarian rule in the ephemeral pursuit of energy, migration and security interests. Policy-wise it followed suit by bolstering its presence in the region through regular high level visits, an EU office in Benghazi, and the appointment of an EU Special Representative. More concretely, it increased by €700 million the €3.5 billion already earmarked for the Mediterranean in the 2011-13 period, designating part of these funds to specific instruments that support political transition.

It provided financial support for existing bodies such as the Anna Lindh Foundation and established new instruments such as the Civil Society Facility and the newly-minted European Endowment for Democracy. Aware of the deepening socio-economic problems along its southern shores, the EU approved negotiation directives for Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreements, set-up Task Forces to coordinate public and private European investment in Tunisia and Jordan, launched an agriculture development initiative, and declared its intention to reach mobility partnerships with Morocco and Tunisia, the first step before moving on to consider visa facilitation.

All this fits, broadly speaking, in the EU box of tricks. The EU has fine-tuned its existing instruments and has added new ones to the mix. But it has not engaged in “out-of-the-box” thinking and has certainly not cast its policies within a broader political-strategic approach to the region. Two years into the Arab uprisings, a strategy centred on a shared European appreciation of the challenge at hand, the desired end goals and the most effective way to pursue them has not been elaborated. EU institutions, and specifically the European External Action Service, have done their part. But they have not been followed by the member states.

This has meant, in part, that the EU has even failed to deliver on some of its commitments on paper. On the movement of people for instance, not only have mobility partnerships yet to see the light of day, but we are far from witnessing any meaningful increase in regular migration from the region, while the influx of irregular migrants has been promptly tackled through strengthened border controls, a more muscular border agency – Frontex – and swiftly renegotiated agreements with the new Libyan authorities.

Propelled by crisis

What explains the EU’s state of strategic disarray? As all things global, the Mediterranean has been the indirect victim of the Eurozone crisis. The crisis, by far the most existential in Europe’s painstaking integration project, has predictably deepened Europe’s political navel gazing. It has bolstered protectionist instincts and zipped up the EU’s purse, making original calls for a Marshall Plan for the Mediterranean fast fade from the European political lexicon. Southern Europe has been in the eye of the storm of the crisis, although historically speaking the political-strategic impulse behind EU initiatives for the Mediterranean has always come from… southern Europe. Regardless of their success, the Euro-Arab dialogue of the 1970s, the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership and the 5+5 dialogue of the 1990s or the Union for the Mediterranean of the 2000s were all southern European brainchildren. Put differently, it is difficult to imagine an EU strategy for the Mediterranean whose roots do not lie deeply in Mediterranean Europe.        

The economic crisis gripping Italy, Spain, Greece and Portugal (and to a lesser extent France) has zeroed for the time being the political space for strategic thinking; more so for strategic action. Beyond short-term military interventions and knee-jerk reactions to stem migration, southern European states have neither developed long-term bilateral strategies for the region, nor have they taken the lead to reignite an EU-wide initiative. They have drastically reduced their bilateral commitments in the region, relapsing on a concern for “vital interests” and “traditional partners”, alongside a rather infantile intra-EU competition over who gets in first to the political-economic openings of a region in flux.

But it is precisely the economic crisis that should propel southern Europe to jump into the driver’s seat of the EU’s Mediterranean policies. It is the crisis that increases rather than reduces both the interest and the value of a southern European push for a political and economic change in the Mediterranean within an EU framework. Being currently perceived as an economic burden in some northern member states, southern Europe would demonstrate its key role in fostering an effective EU role in the world.

Economic engagement

As far as economic interests are concerned, southern European members not only represent the major trading partners of the Mediterranean partners, but could have much to gain from deeper and more coordinated responses amongst each other and with other regional actors to support the joint economic development of the area. In southern Europe, despite a resilient capacity in design and creating global brands, the crisis has taken a harsh toll on growth and productivity. Boosting competitiveness by reforming labour and product markets and upgrading innovation, education and public sector efficiency is of the essence. Doing so by engaging the Mediterranean economically could represent an important way forward.

Yet the paucity of funds and credit lines have curtailed initiatives in this direction. In view of this, partnering with regional actors such as Turkey, which boasts impressive growth rates and market penetration in the region (but which still lacks the know-how to become a high tech, high productivity country), could benefit southern Europe and the southern Mediterranean alike. South European firms could gain from Turkey’s dynamism and entrepreneurial spirit especially when it comes to opening to new markets. Much like Germany was the lead economic engine in Eastern Europe’s development, southern Europe and Turkey could assume a similar role for the southern Mediterranean economic transformation.

To do so a practical approach would foresee a focus on well-defined high-impact projects. These should meet the needs of the south Mediterranean, with countries of the region being viewed as partners and not simply markets. They should focus on small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) (in sectors such as agrofood and machinery) so as to democratize economic development and improve the investment climate, and form part of a larger vision for creating a diversified, competitive, and connected Mediterranean economic hinterland by enhancing and expanding regional value chains.

Concrete ideas to this effect would include supporting trilateral business undertakings between south European, Turkish and southern Mediterranean companies, employing a value chain perspective in which the different stages of the production cycle would be dealt with by different companies on both shores. The EU Task Forces already in place for Tunisia and Jordan could hypothetically become the venue in which such match-making exercises could take place, bringing together companies from southern Europe and the broader Mediterranean and Middle Eastern space. As well-positioned players in this region, southern European members could do much to leverage their complementarities and contribute to the Mediterranean’s development, helping themselves to exit the crisis by increasing their productivity and deepening their economic outreach in the region. It is a relatively low-hanging fruit that eagerly awaits to be picked.

As far as political value is concerned, southern Europe has much to contribute in terms of support for democracy. The EU’s democracy promotion policies have traditionally been the turf of northern member states. Be it the product of greater cynicism and strategic interests or of a more nuanced understanding of the socio-political complexities of the region, southern Europe has generally been (overly) cautious, refraining from rocking the authoritarian boats in the region. The Arab uprisings have certainly shattered the illusion of an authoritarian steady state. But they have not led to a southern European rethink of how they could promote deep democracy in the region. Yet the EU’s traditional approach to democracy promotion made of the stuff of political conditionality, best practice templates and finger-wagging political dialogue, while laudable in intent, often grates on the region’s post-colonial sensitivities, heightened by the nationalist impulses spurred by the Arab uprisings. Epitomizing this is post-Mubarak Egypt’s polite refusal of the EU’s offer of security sector reform and election monitoring.

A story to tell

It is in this context that southern Europe has a story to tell, one embedded in its history of transition from authoritarian rule and in the current political challenges that the economic crisis has brought to the fore. Tunisia, Libya and Egypt are all grappling with the first post-revolutionary phase: the drafting, approval and implementation of new constitutions followed by elections. In Tunisia, the murder of opposition figure Chokri Belaid has added fuel to the fire of mounting social tensions and a growing rift not only between the secular and Islamist camps, but within Ennahda itself. In Libya the first phase of transition has been ominously prolonged by the postponement of parliamentary elections until an elected Constituent Assembly will have successfully submitted a constitution to referendum. In the meanwhile insecurity and border porousness rage on. In Egypt, the approval of the constitution by referendum has heightened the polarization between the secular and Islamist camps, while also revealing a growing fragmentation between and within the Brotherhood and Salafist strands of the latter. A healthy political dynamic would have opposing political camps dialectically engaging within the confines of shared rules of the game. But in a context in which institutions have all but collapsed, social mistrust is at an all-time high and political groupings are both polarized and fragmented we are a far cry from this ideal scenario.

All transitions to democratic rule have their idiosyncrasies. But historical peculiarities aside, southern Europe has an experience to share with its southern neighbours. Over the course of the last century, Italy, Greece, Spain and Portugal in different ways all witnessed the radicalization of a socio-economic struggle, which erupted in the prolonged suspension of democratic life. Years (and in some cases decades) later they all experienced the pains that come when democracy is born out of dictatorial rule, and suffered from (but also eventually coped with) political polarization between religious-inspired conservative movements and secular, post-communist progressive forces. Lessons learnt, mistakes to be avoided and the mere sharing of a similar historical trajectory would help create a degree of empathy between the two Mediterranean shores.

Alongside the past, the present too presents socio-economic and political challenges which while infinitely more manageable in scale than those of the southern partners are not fundamentally different in nature. Spain’s 57% youth unemployment, Greece’s 20% collapse in GDP in five years, Italy’s institutional sclerosis and the disturbing surge of populist extremes that capture the sentiments of disaffected youth across southern Europe are all problems which echo across the Mediterranean. Southern European democracies are still “work in progress”. It is by presenting themselves as such and engaging with their neighbours on this basis that EU democracy promotion policies could be received as less patronizing and intrusive.         

Southern European countries could share their experiences on two issues which drive at the heart of the Arab transformation: institution-building within Arab political and civil societies, and dialogue between and within the religious-secular camps leading to an inclusive constitution-making process. The EU has a wealth of experience in institution-building and rule of law promotion at state level. Where it is (and will remain) deficient is at party political and civil society levels. The EU is certainly vying to rectify this gap, and the agreement upon (but still not functioning of) a European Endowment for Democracy is a step in this direction. But the EU’s very nature as a highly institutionalized intergovernmental and supranational entity necessarily makes it more inclined to interact at governmental level. It is here that European, and notably southern European, political parties and foundations ought to enlarge the scope of dialogue and exchange with emerging leaders and newly elected parliamentarians in order to share experiences in the construction of a democratic political infrastructure, also engaging NGOs, universities and think tanks in the process. While an economic Marshall Plan for the Middle East is off the radar screen of the EU, more so of southern Europe, a political Marshall Plan in democratic culture and experience sharing is both possible and necessary.

Credibility in the region

Finally, an EU strategic approach towards the Mediterranean and the Middle East cannot ignore the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While the Arab uprisings have been driven by endogenous local and regional dynamics that are seemingly removed from the protracted Arab-Israeli conflict, it is beyond the shadow of a doubt that EU policy towards the conflict represents one of if not the most important determinants of Europe’s credibility in the region and thus its ability to act as a credible force for transformation there. Here too southern Europe has a role to play. Southern European support for the Palestinian observer state status at the UN was an important show of unity and, above all (and in sharp contrast with the EU’s stance as a whole), in full sync with the agreed EU approach towards the conflict. Having taken this stance, the burden now lies in southern Europe to demonstrate how and why the Palestinian initiative could be turned into a constructive step towards conflict resolution.

The failure of the Arab transitions or their protracted stalling are a cost that Europe, and in particular southern Europe, cannot afford to bear, but which requires a change of gear not only within EU institutions but above all at member state level. It is southern Europe that has traditionally inserted politics and strategy in the EU’s Mediterranean policies. The economic crisis gripping Europe means that this should be the case even more so today. The second anniversary of the Arab uprisings is a belated but still vitally needed opportunity for southern Europe to set in motion this strategic change of gear.

About the authors

Lapo Pistelli is a member of the Italian Parliament and Head of the Foreign Affairs Department of the Democrat Party.

Nathalie Tocci is deputy director of the Istituto Affari Internazionali in Rome.